keyboard_arrow_uptop

Previously in this series:
Confessions of a Fake Manager: The Set Up
Confessions of a Fake Manager: April
Confessions of a Fake Manager: May
Confessions of a Fake Manager: June
Confessions of a Fake Manager: July

In an effort to become the perfect SaberManager™, I'm taking over the 2005 Cubs and leading them through a simulated season in Out of the Park. I'll do all of the things that I've told managers they should be doing, while paying attention both to how feasible strategies are in isolation and within the context of a baseball team playing a baseball season. For more details and a full explanation of why and how I've chosen to do thisand with 2005 Cubs of all teamsclick here.

***

Game 108 (August 4) – at Phillies; Loss 2-9; Record 61-47

Time to set the stage for what is likely to be a playoff sprint. After dropping two of three games to the Phillies in Philadelphia, the Cubs are now half a game behind the Marlins for the Wild Card spot. The Cardinals, while I wasn’t watching, have crept up behind and tied the Cubs. The gap is five games for the division, so that seems less likely. The closest team behind the Marlins/Cubs/Cards pack in the Wild Card standings is the Mets, five games behind. So, it looks like it’s going to be a three-way fight for one spot in the playoffs.

And I realize that this is coming during the time when this whole exercise is beginning to feel like a chore. I have to remember to plan ahead for when Henry Blanco has to catch a day game after a night game, instead of Michael Barrett, especially if I want to give someone else a day off in my lineup. I have to do my daily scan of my bullpen and make plans for how I’m going to get through the day. There are occasional bench bats fresh off the Iowa shuttle.

I’ve done a few road trips in my life. Twice a year, I drive my family from Atlanta to Cleveland (and back) to visit my parents. On the way north, the part I dread is the stretch between Columbus and Cleveland. It’s the last leg of the trip and I’m tired and ready to be done. And there’s nothing to look at, just endless farms. There’s a similar stretch between Knoxville, Tennesee and Lexington, Kentucky, but there are exits every few miles and most of them have the courtesy to at least have a gas station at the top of the ramp, as well as a few small-ish towns. In Ohio, the only thing that you can do is set the car on cruise at 60 (Ohio Highway Patrol has … a bit of a reputation) and count the mile markers.

I feel like I’m in the middle of Ohio.

***

Game 111 (August 8) – vs. Reds; Loss 5-8; Record: 62-49

After the Mets, the Cubs, and the rain each took a game of a three-game set in New York, the Cubs traveled to Cincinnati (since we were already in Ohio). That rained out game will be played on what would have been an off day in September. I’m sure I’ll be kicking myself when I get there, but for now, it’s nice to have a day off to reset things.

Before this game, I’d been allowing myself to indulge in some very cart-before-horse thinking. How would I handle the playoff rotation, if I get there? Carlos Zambrano and Greg Maddux have held their own this season, and would continue to be “regular” starters. But how to handle my tandem starters? Right now, here are their stats for the year:

Pitcher

ERA

FIP

Rusch

2.57

3.13

Hill

3.32

3.88

Prior

3.50

4.06

Nolasco

4.94

4.00

Wood

6.11

5.89

Right now, Kerry Wood usually pairs with Rich Hill, Mark Prior pairs with Ricky Nolasco, and Glendon Rusch pitches in relief. Come playoff time, my best “starter” might be a combination of Hill and Rusch. But man, have I gotten used to Rusch pitching in relief. In a playoff series, the ability to spot him into a situation which might need him would be an amazing luxury. But that kind of lux might not be for us.

Mentally, I’m preparing for a rotation of Zambrano/Hill-Rusch/Maddux and then Prior/Nolasco, if necessary. Maybe the better way would be to have a three-man rotation, and to have Prior and Hill tandem start and have Rusch, Nolasco, and … well, Wood has to pitch some time in reserve.

Then this game happened. In it, Maddux pitched six innings, giving up three runs, and then Rusch put two more zeroes on the board. In the bottom of the eighth, when Eric Patterson hit a two-run home run to untie the game, it looked like the Cubs were going to pick this game up. I had Michael Wuertz and Will Ohman out in the bullpen, ready to go. Wuertz came on to face the 8-9-1 hitters of the Reds' lineup (Jason LaRue, Santiago Perez, Felipe Lopez), and Ohman was on call if the Sean Casey/Ken Griffey Jr./Adam Dunn left-handed canyon of death came up. I felt pretty good about what was about to happen.

Five. Runs. Later …

I don’t have anyone I can count on in the bullpen, beyond Rusch. Before the game, I was thinking ahead to the playoffs. Now, I have to worry about even getting there. (I’ve fallen a game and a half behind the Cardinals.) And even if I do get there, I dread going into the eighth inning of Game 1. There is no sabermetric way out of this one. There’s just dread.

***

Game 113 (August 10) – vs. Reds; Loss 3-5 (11); Record: 63-50

The good: Jason Dubois hit his 20th homer of the season in this game. The real Dubois got 25 plate appearances in 2004 with the Cubs, and then 202 plate appearances in 2005 with the Cubs and Indians, and despite spending five more years kicking around Triple-A, he never saw the majors again. In this alternate universe, he has emerged from a guy who was slated to be right-handed part of a platoon with Todd Hollandsworth in left field to playing there every day and hitting fourth or fifth in the lineup. I’m realizing that his emergence has covered for at least some of what was lost by the early Aramis Ramirez injury. Here’s to alternate timelines.

The bad: Mike Remlinger pulled up with a “stiff back” about a week ago, and it has lingered. My general manager has steadfastly refused to put him on the disabled list, leaving me with an even shorter bullpen than usual. And that’s why Jaret Wright and his 7.28 ERA were out on the mound for the ninth, 10th, and 11th inning of a tie game.

The forthcoming: The Cubs remain a game-and-a-half behind the Cardinals for the Wild Card spot. Guess who’s coming to town for four games.

***

Game 114 (August 11) – vs. Cardinals; Loss 2-20; Record: 63-51; 7 GB Division, 2.5 GB Wild Card

I’d like to be able to say that this was a game where the real pitching staff did OK, but then I let a couple of position players pitch and it just got away. Yes, both Scott McClain and Corey Patterson pitched. But they only gave up four of those runs.

Not exactly the start I was hoping for in this big series. I don’t even know what I would have told my virtual Cubs in our pretend clubhouse after this one. I guess, “tomorrow it starts at 0-0.” In some way, it feels like this one would be an easier one to handle than if it had been a back-and-forth 9-8 game that we eventually lost. This one was just a dud. Move on with life, everyone.

***

Game 115 (August 12) – vs. Cardinals; Win 8-4; Record: 64-51; 7 GB Division, 1.5 GB Wild Card
Game 116 (August 13) – vs. Cardinals; Win 14-2; Record: 65-51; 6 GB Division, 1.5 GB Wild Card
Game 117 (August 14) – vs. Cardinals; Win 2-1 (11); Record: 66-51; 6 GB Division, 1.5 GB Wild Card

Yeah, like that.

In the 14-2 game, the last two innings were once again pitched by Scott McClain and Corey Patterson. (One of my guys would have gotten drilled for that the next day.)

***

Game 120 (August 17) – at Astros; Win 12-3; Record: 67-53, 6.5 GB Division, 3 GB Wild Card

I had my first real moment of despair today. The Cubs went to Houston after taking three of four from the Astros, and lost the first two games of the series. In the bottom of the first inning, the Astros took a 3-0 lead off Prior. I’ve mentally given up on the idea of catching the Astros for the division title, but there is still the Wild Card. The problem is that those two losses put me three games behind the Marlins, who are currently sitting in that space. I found myself saying things like “I can’t afford to lose this game. I can’t fall further behind.”

Fortunately for me, the Cubs ran off 12 unanswered runs, although thanks to a Marlins win, I didn’t pick up any ground. I can feel myself starting to manage in “must-win” mode. I had to remind myself to schedule some off days for the regulars, if only for the fact that it’s still mid-August, and they can’t play every day for the next six weeks.

***

Game 121 (August 19) – at Rockies; Loss 4-8; Record: 67-54, 7.5 GB Division, 4 GB Wild Card

And then this game happened. There was nothing dramatic about it. We just lost. And now we’re four games back. For some reason, three looks manageable. Four looks insurmountable. Baseball implicitly teaches us to think about three-game series by playing so many of them during the regular season. We could sweep a three-game series against the Marlins (coming up a week from today!) and tie them with a three-game deficit, but with a four-game gap, even if we sweep, we’re still behind.

I find myself very much fighting the urge to play every game like it’s a “must win.” Those days may come, but you also can’t sprint a marathon. Coming into this exercise, I figured that my ability to execute stratagems would be the most important thing. If this were real life, my job would be to get ready for six weeks of trying to keep my guys fresh.

***

Game 123 (August 21) – at Rockies; Win 6-4; Record: 69-54, 6.5 GB Division, 3 GB Wild Card

Two straight wins against the Rockies nets me a game in my chase of the Marlins. This particular game featured a fairly uneventful 1 2/3 innings from Ohman, Wuertz, Remlinger, and then a perfectly boring Ryan Dempster save. Remember when I was maybe a liiiiiiiiiiittle over-reacting to a small sample size and said I couldn’t trust any of those guys?

Then again, in the game beforehand, I let Rusch pitch four innings in a tie game because … I can’t trust any of those other guys.

After the game, I got the message that ARAMIS RAMIREZ IS BACK! In real life, I told my wife about this, and she said, “You’re getting really into this aren’t you?” Then she asked me who Aramis Ramirez is.

***

Game 125 (August 23) – vs. Braves; Loss 6-7; Record: 70-55, 5.5 GB Division, 2 GB Wild Card
Game 126 (August 24) – vs. Braves; Win 5-4; Record: 71-55; 4.5 GB Division, 1 GB Wild Card

I hate my bullpen. The Braves had already won the first game of this series 6-3, keeping pace with the Marlins who had also been victorious that day.

In the eighth inning of the second game, Rusch managed to turn a 4-3 Cubs lead into a 5-4 Braves lead. And even when a Jeromy Burnitz RBI single and a Jerry Hairston Jr. sacrifice fly put things back in their proper order, Ohman and Dempster surrendered two more runs in the top of the ninth. In the third game, Remlinger couldn’t hold a 2-2 tie in the eighth, but was bailed out by the Cubs' offense scoring two in the bottom of the eighth and winning on a walk-off Mike Hampton wild pitch.

Had they managed to hold the line like a good bullpen, we could have been walking into the forthcoming series with the Marlins on equal footing. But over and over, leads are vanishing late, and there are only so many late-inning heroics you can count on. I think I now understand the temptation to over-pay for relief help, whether in the free agent market or at the trade deadline, when it seems that even middling guys fetch a decent prospect in return.

Maybe this is more just the emotional level than anything, but there’s a strategic piece to it as well. There are a lot of close games played in baseball, and in the modern game, it takes 3-4 relievers to finish out a game. If one of them goes rotten in a close game, you lose the game. Individually and in the aggregate, they may all be fine, but the bullpen is only as strong as its weakest link in getting the job done.

Aramis Ramirez was 1-for-11 in his first series back from the disabled list. So much for the saving grace for the Cubs' season.

But, now, we approach what will probably be the most critical series of the season. The Marlins are coming to Chicago for three games. The Cubs had an off day on August 25, while the Marlins played and beat the Brewers, so we enter the weekend down a game-and-a-half in the Wild Card. Everything lined up nicely so that both Zambrano and Maddux will pitch. I guess I’ll know in a couple of days what’s to become of the 2005 Cubs.

***

Game 127 (August 26) – vs. Marlins; Loss 2-6 (14); Record: 71-56; 5.5 GB Division, 2.5 GB Wild Card
Game 128 (August 27) – vs. Marlins; Loss 0-5; Record: 71-57; 6.5 GB Division, 3.5 GB Wild Card
Game 129 (August 28) – vs. Marlins; Loss 6-10; Record: 71-58; 7.5 GB Division, 4.5 GB Wild Card

Fiddlesticks.

***

Game 132 (August 31) – vs. Dodgers; Win 17-10; Record: 73-59; 8 GB Division, 4.5 GB Wild Card

On the final day of August, and the last day of a nine-game homestand that ultimately produced a 4-5 record, the Cubs beat the Dodgers 17-10. And it was even sloppier than the final score made it look. The game was played in the rain, and Zambrano gave up three home runs and five run runs in the top of the first inning. Undaunted, my Cubs clawed back two runs in the bottom of the second, and after another run in the third, they loaded the bases for Nomar Garciaparra, who proceeded to unload them.

Up 7-5, the Cubs continued to pour it on the same way that the sky did (which led to an hour rain delay in the fourth inning). Ramirez finally hit like an All-Star and went 3-for-5 with a home run. Barrett and Garciaparra both had four hits. Up 17-6 in the eighth inning, I let catcher Henry Blanco and outfielder Jerry Hairston Jr. finish off the game on the mound. Blanco even threw a scoreless 1-2-3 inning. Maybe I should let him close.

Nomar has had quite the resurgence from when I banished him down the lineup card a few months ago. His grand slam was his 21st home run of the season, and he’s brought his OBP into the .310 range, about 50 points above where he once was. However, I still find myself thinking of him as the tragically flawed player I assumed he was back then. When I make out my lineups, I tend to slide him back in the order, even though I now have decent evidence that he’s been hitting better of late, and maybe his early-season swoon was just a small-sample weirdness.

Then again, based entirely on Ramirez’s reputation, I slotted him directly back into the third spot in the lineup when he came back from the DL, having no idea whether he would still hit like a three-hole hitter or not. (After all, he had just one plate appearance early in the year!) There’s always a lot of criticism of managers who seem to wedded to their ideas of where a player should hit in a lineup. I have to say, I’m falling prey to the same impulse.

I also realize that have no idea who should be playing center field for my Cubs right now. If I’m playing platoons, Corey Patterson is left-handed, and so should get most of the starts, but his line has been the worst of the three candidates this year. Hairston has put up some solid, but not spectacular numbers, but isn’t quite the defender that Patterson is. Journeyman Calvin Murray came up earlier in the year and got some regular time when the other two were down to injury (and has provided a couple of crucial hits), but he’s not really a long-term answer.

The Cubs do have prospects like Felix Pie and Sam Fuld, who should probably be getting playing time, but I’m not sure what they can offer the big team right now, and right now, I still have hopes (delusions?) of being in a playoff chase. To be honest, when it comes time to fill in that spot on the lineup card, I shrug and pick one at random.